At times, due either to genuine concerns about children, or as a consequence of a breakdown of relationships between parents and social workers, a social services department will seek care or additional powers over children.
To obtain such an Order it is necessary for Social Services to establish to a Court that the children will suffer ‘significant harm’ if action is not taken.
The Children Act 1989 lays down the circumstances under a child may be taken into care or a supervision order made. The necessary criteria are:
- that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
- that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to the care given to the child (or which would be given if a care or supervision order were not made) and is not what could be reasonably expected of a parent, or that the child is beyond the control of the parents.
In order to determine whether these criteria are met, a thorough fact-finding exercise must first be carried out. The local authority is required to prepare a clear written analysis of the facts on which the authority’s decision to apply to take the child into care is based. This analysis should be divided into three stages:
- an establishment of the primary facts;
- an assessment as to whether the criteria outlined above are met; and
- an overall assessment of what action is likely to be in the child’s best interests.
The Orders that may then be applied for include:
- A Care Order. This will place the Children in the care of the Local Authority. It does not necessarily mean that the children will be removed from their parent’s care, but can result in this, and will in any event remove much of the responsibility and decision making a parent has for their children.
- A Supervision Order. This does not authorise Social Services to remove the children, but does give them powers to intervene in the children’s upbringing.
- A Family Assistance Order. These cannot be made for longer than 6 months, and will authorise a social worker to maintain regular contact with the parents and the family. It cannot be made unless the parents consent.
- Emergency Protection Order. This allows immediate removal of the children, but must be followed by an application for a Care Order.
- Child Assessment Orders. The court can order that a child undergo an assessment (e.g. psychological or educational) to decide if a child is suffering “significant harm” and therefore whether the court should make a care order.
- Education Supervision Orders. If a court considers a child is not being properly educated it can make an order putting the child under the supervision of a particular education authority, (as long as the child is not in local authority care). These orders are usually made for up to 1 year, but can be extended.
- Secure Accommodation Orders. If a child has a history of running away or is likely to run away from where they are living then a body such as a local authority, education authority, health authority or children’s home can apply for an order that the child be kept in secure accommodation, (their movements will be monitored). Also, if a child is likely to suffer significant harm or is likely to injure themselves an order can be made.
- Contribution Orders. Where a local authority is looking after a child it can apply to the court for an order that the child’s parents must contribute to the child’s upkeep.
A local authority must first serve a contribution notice on the parents stating how much they should pay. If the parents do not pay or start to pay and then stop, the local authority can then apply to the court for a contribution order. However, the local authority cannot apply until one month after the date of their contribution notice.
Rather than remove the children, the Courts have powers to remove an ‘abuser’ from the home.
It is quite possible to oppose an application by a local authority for an Order relating to your children. To do so, it is necessary to show that the children are not at risk of ‘significant harm’, and that their welfare is best served by them remaining with you, and under your care. To make such an application, you must have parental responsibility. If an Order has been made, it is possible to apply to the Court to discharge the Order but legl advice should be sought first.
The Family Rights Group provides advice and support for families whose children are involved with social services. The web site offers information sheets to download, and you can find out about the free help line that the group has set up.